Saturday, March 19, 2011

PAX East: God of War III (PS3)

Play Time ~45min

History with the Franchise:
When I graduated college and had free time again and was trying to get into the industry, I bought and played the first God of War. I'm not really sure how much time I actually spent playing it - I petered out somewhere around Hades. I think I got stuck somewhere in a level, and since my interest was waning anyway, I stopped playing. (Reminds me of one of the slides from the Designing Games for the 43 Year-Old Woman GDC talk about "stuck points" which can easily lose people who aren't hardcore gamers. This happened to me in Portal also - even though I was having fun, I got stuck and then I didn't pick it up anymore. Not that that's an error on the side of design, just that I'm not that type of gamer.)

What Happened:
I played for a good 30-40min at PAX East Console Freeplay. At the start of the game you are climbing up Mount Olympus with a group of titans, and helping the nearest titan who is being attacked by Poseidon's horse. Along the way you are also fighting.. I dunno, the undead army or something, so there are lots of small, violent, head-stomping (ew) skirmishes along the way. You travel along a completely linear path. There are some indoor sections in structures and caves on the titan where there is some bit of figuring out how to get from point A to point B. I got to the Poseidon fight and then stopped.

What I Liked:
Opening sequence. The game has a pretty cool opening title sequence which is stylized to look like Grecian pottery paintings. I always think it's pretty cool when games show credits at the start, like movies or TV shows. :) That being said, I do think it was a little bit lacking in execution - the transitions were a little bit awkward and there were a lot of things that struck me as unpolished. Also it was really long - not because of the quantity of names, but because of transitions, animations, etc. It felt drawn out.

Creature design. The titans were really neat - they all looked like individuals (even if I'm wrong and they weren't, the camera work certainly tricked me into thinking that they were) and the way that they embodied different elements made them interesting. More than the titans, Poseidon's water-spider/crab-horses were incredibly awesome. I felt that they were truly unique - unlike most game creatures, I didn't look at them and think "this has been done before."

Scale. I'm pretty sure this is a "thing" for the God of War series - I haven't seen very many games that convey a sense of scale quite as effectively as this one. You're always coming up to sprawling vistas, or in this case, seeing something happen to the giant titan far in the distance - and feeling that sense of "I have to hurry to get all of the way over there to help her."

Cinematic nature of events. This is another GoW "thing" but there are a lot of 'events' which happen during a level. In this level, for example, you get on and off of the titan and interactions between the nearest titan and the horse-spiders cause your ground plane to shift. For example, when you are climbing on the titan herself, she reacts to the horse and now your whole ground plane is oriented sideways, or upside-down. You feel as though you are traversing on a living, giant thing, and it feels as though things are constantly happening - and that if you stopped responding, things would still be happening. Like it's a living world.  

Cameras. Overall, the cameras were very well done. First, they were great in communicating all of the cinematic events and sense of scale. They were also just very well composed throughout the game. When you go into "Heart of Gaia" cave section, there are some really nicely composed camera angles which show a great sense of depth and framing. The only time I ever had a problem was when I was first learning to glide - I kept getting it wrong (which, I don't think you'd assume that many players would have a hard time gliding, honestly - I think this one was just me) and it caused me to fall into a pit. Getting out of the pit was somewhat awkward because the platforms I need to jump on were located behind the camera, so they were hard to see. Other than that, beautiful. 

What I Didn't Like:
Opening cinematic. Not the title sequence, but when you start the game you get a narrated sequence where the camera flies all over this city and shows that the world is a terrible place - it swings all around and eventually gets to the reveal of the titans climbing Mount Olympus and Kratos with them. Now, the reveal of the titans is really well done - but I felt that the first half of the cinematic was just really cliche. People being indiscriminately killed by monsters as they walk around, sort of boring. But the thing that really pulled me out of it was that the camera starts off following a bird around (which makes me sigh) and then, at some point, the bird gets killed by a falling rock. It just felt... lame. Like someone thought of that and went "No! Here's how we'll make it different, and tongue-in-cheek!"

Missing takehit. When I was fighting the individual horse-spiders, there was a section where I was supposed to be hitting it in the legs, but there was zero reaction when I did hit it in the legs - so I thought I wasn't supposed to. I got stuck for awhile, and at Issam's insistence went back to hit the legs, and then beat the thing. Confusing. During the actual Poseidon fight, the horse legs hit react though.

Impractical temple! I know it's a game, but sometimes I get pulled out when I notice completely impractical things. For example, there's a part where you're inside of a temple. You beat up a bunch  of bad guys, and then you can pull a lever (I tried to pull the lever before I beat up the guys, and it didn't respond.. which is also fictionally weird). The lever causes this big hanging platform to move like, 8ft - and then you can progress from the floor to a first platform, to the hanging platform, to the other side of the room with the door. In what realistic circumstance would something like this ever exist? Is this how Zeus travels up Mount Olympus when he's by himself? It's just sort of goofy.  

Tedious enemies. This is the other thing I've never liked about the GoW series, or really, any beat 'em up. I don't really get a lot of joy from having what feels like the same fight so many times over. This series handles it better than most, in that the combat tree is complex, and interesting - different button combinations get me different animations, different enemies can be killed in different ways - but I still feel like I'm just hitting the same 2 buttons over and over. I don't really need to kill thousands of guys.

Only the girl titan needs your help?! Haha, this is just because I've been thinking about gender too much lately, but I thought it was funny that the titan you were helping was a woman. It might have made me feel better if I also saw her do something really badass at some point, but she didn't, really.

Not always obvious traversal. It's a linear game, which I actually really like, but every once in awhile I felt that it was hard to identify what you could climb on, or jump to. It felt like some jump distances seemed bigger than others - so I'd see something and go "well, I know I can't get to it by jumping" and look for another way. Then I'd realize I could jump to it.

Overall it's a really pretty game, but it definitely struck me that everything you see looks like the same material. I think it's because so many things were supposed to look wet because of the spider-horses? I dunno, too much specular on everything.

Weird puzzle. When you're in the Heart of Gaia, there's a room where you need to find  way to climb upwards. There's a vertical slice missing from the wall on one side of the cave, and a glowing light point (symbol for pressing shoulder button) on the other side. Oh, I see - I grab this vertical slice of cave wall and drag it to the gap on the other side of the cave wall. Now there's a continuous ridge I can climb on. What the hell?! How does that make any sense? What happened in this cave to create this puzzle? This is basically the same complaint as the impractical temple.

Gliding visual. When you want to glide, you hold the jump button after double jumping and Kratos grows crow wings and you glide. Maybe it's because I don't know the fiction here, but it definitely seems like this visual doesn't quite fit in. Kratos isn't doing anything else that's magical... The first time I did it by mistake and didn't hold it - so I saw a flash of wing and had no idea what was happening.

Swinging. When you swing on stuff, it's happening just a little too quickly, and as such usually leaves me feeling like I don't know what just happened. Like, I press the shoulder button, and blink, and then I'm standing on top of a ledge. :) I'm sure it's probably cool looking too, so it's a shame that it's just a bit too fast.

How Do I Feel About Continuing?: 
Honestly, while I was playing I didn't feel like I was having a lot of fun, but now that I've done this write-up, I realize that there was a lot of cool stuff happening in this game. GoW is generally championed as a game that's not unique, but is a sort of compilation of awesome, existing mechanics with a lot of polish. Even if that's the case, I would definitely turn to this game if I wanted to study well done in-game cinematics, scale, and combat trees. Maybe I will pick it up again, for the sake of learning - not because I want to do more head-stomping.

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